Transport policies in South Africa fail us because issues are copied and pasted

Policy making can not be outsourced, it is an internal exploration — a deep investigation; rewriting a future; defining meaning and finding a sense of place.

After reading the Draft White Paper on National Transport Policy, I felt encouraged, and convinced that the policy framework in the document is actionable and relevant. It was only after relocating myself away from the South African narrative that the policy began to crumble and its long term footing revealed underestimations of key policy issues that should reinforce the national development objectives — current and future. There seems to be an inherent notion from the policy makers that they can not preempt future developments and need to formulate policies that interact with the existing status quo. A status quo which has changed in terms of glitter, but it is suffice to say there has been no blatant change in terms of how the value from transport and logistics value chains is extracted. This is an alarming situation because the magnitude and pace of change may seem slow from a distance — but as any transportation enthusiast will know young people, as with young countries can not comprehend the true speed of moving objects when crossing from one side to another.

There is an influx of policies coming out for comment in South Africa

Each province seems to have been consulted with somewhere between 2016 and 2017, and meetings were constituted by a number of stakeholders. I attended one of these sessions and recall that it was initially a broad discussion and later on evolved into more focused sector or mode specific discussions. Parallel to this was the public consultation and publication of the National Transport Master Plan 2050, which was intended to churn through an understanding of the status quo and long term considerations, strategic priorities and key action areas for officials, stakeholders and practitioners. A number of other policy documents were published specifically after the 2015 season and more so during the tenure of Ms Dipuo Peters (a build up from years of work).

There are a number of concurrent policies that have practically landed on the public arena. Some are policy outputs: products of certain policy positions translated into strategic documents to direct planning, development, investment and curricula on a subject. Others are legislative statements, statutory documents that mandate administrative functions and translate policy narratives into actionable legally binding institutional scaffolding. There seems to be a number of excellent policy positions in circulation but they don’t seem to be coordinated in a manner that shows a deeply thoughtful and coordinated pattern of action. This may be due to all the red tape and legislative webs wrapped all over economics, labour violence, politics, Parliament and governance issues. Usually when an entity scrabbles around trying to answer all the questions and take positions it’s part of a process of self discovery. All the new legislation and strategies are confronted with the Competition Commission Inquiry on public passenger transport — something no one can and should ignore. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that all of the policies emerged before the end of the enquiry. It may well be a safety net for the NDoT to gear up for interventions and findings from the inquiry. On the other hand it may well be fertile ground for an asymmetric policy and strategic outlook skewed far from surface transport economic realities. Neither seems good.

If people participate have a serious approach to capturing their inputs, narratives and goals

We do need more transparency in all aspects of society and moreso with institutions. It’s crucial to articulate how everything was done, in very specific detail in order to encourage repetition and consistency locally and internationally. It’s a question of policy making consistency and understanding how raw interests, submissions and notes converged — like policy metadata. This metadata has both technical and epistemological seams weaving through constructive policy positions.

The overwhelming and exciting volumes of policy crafting through service providers and stakeholders from the NDoT are essentially desktop material for most officials, practitioners and students right now. Although this is good, there are some seriously technical issues with regard to the manner in which the policy was formulated. Specifically, the manner in which policy issues from stakeholder engagement were captured and consolidated in a systematic and criteria based methodology to finally inform the policy document itself. This is rather important because the last thing a rapidly transforming society needs is a policy document driven by politics, service provider interests (or even capacity) and personalities. Of course some of these factors can not be avoided, but they can not and should not overshadow the redistribution of opportunity, equity, economic viability and global competitive positioning. That is to say, that the national policy should not simply adopt global “best” practice without a critical assessment of the institutional infrastructure that enables development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. This puts the country, and our relationships with the region at a disadvantage — waiting for the next best thing to land upon our laps and constrains policy innovation without critical and deep systematic thought.

We need to think and reflect deeply for ourselves

In a broad sense, I am concerned that the philosophy underpinning the white paper is grounded on the often repeated narrative found in some training courses, development programmes and available curriculum. It does not formulate a contextual story, accounting for the major mistakes, shortfalls and cases from which practitioners may learn from. This is partially evident in the Green Paper on Rail Transport Policy wherein cases, inherent values and a development agenda is proposed. In the case of the national policy, there seems to be no such — ignoring the possibility of looking at how Rwanda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ghana, Morocco, Kenya, Zambia, Europe, Australia, Asia, India, Brazil, United States and Canada approached their national policy infrastructure. In this sense, the national policy misses out on both benchmarking — as a strategic point of departure. On a more tactile level, a genuine sense of context and tactile vision is lost, the potential of which is deemed an impossible fable never to be built from unearthing the depths of policy thought, relation and meaningful engagement. As an overarching motif in the next generation’s work — the draft document resonates with key needs, but lacks the flesh and skin that leave a lasting imprint against the backdrop of an evolving society.

A policy formulation process of this nature may take slightly longer — but with nearly 22 years since the last national policy position the National Department of Transport could have invested a lot more to galvanize a deeper clearer narrative. It is also rather worrying that a number of other policies succeeded the White Paper on National Transport Policy: which is supposed to guide the policy making machinery across modal sectors and related services. However, in reality sometimes this is not plausible and comes at a cost of constraining the potentiality of progressive policy making. Poor policy development is synonymous with bad alignment — revealing the state of large institutions and the politics that delude, lure and confuse the entity into an obstipated state — struggling to release what it genuinely should.

Put more boldly, the policy story-line has an outsourced undertone to it in my view — something that does not convince me that authors believe in the document and its impact.

I do not see the burnt Uber and Taxify vehicles dripping through the chapters. I do not see the minibus taxis taking over Johannesburg, petrol bombing buses in Cape Town or innovating their vehicles. I do not sense the punctuality of bus services in Mpumalanga. I do not hear the hot feet crushing sand along the neighbourhood roadway without room space.

I do not hear the truck driver dribbling between bus driving and starting a catering business.

I do not sense the effect of South African Airways on the the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision. I do not sense the ambition and progressive tone behind the voice of some like Siyabonga Gama, CEO of Transnet Limited resonating behind the policy. I do not hear the ripple effects of Lucky Montana’s focus, ambitions and eventual exit cracking through the policy narrative. I do not sense the pain of learners across the country crumbling to bending metal crushing them as they roll over into the scholar transport death toll.

I do not feel the frustration of average commuters sludging through cracking cities, dusty towns and loosely hung lights flickering every morning and night as they spend more than six hours every day grappling with a commute. I do not see the women, inequitably pushing through the day bearing family, harassment, and still pushing through patriarchal funnels in the mobility stream. The sense of urgency does not exist — only fixation.

Fixation on becoming the next elsewhere over celebrating our circumstances by addressing the basic outcomes of racially segregative psychiatry, land-use, policy and economics constraining the potential for black capital accumulation through localising access and mobility.

Which takes me right back to OluTimehin Adegbeye’s question to the City of Lagos:

“Why be the next Dubai when you are already Lagos?”

We can’t keep replicating for the sake of being attractive

I’ve been hearing the same story around policy implementation since I started my career in mobility and access. Some students ask questions like: where are the pressure groups? Others propose that: we need a more serious entity to deal with transport issues! Many agree that at some point the public will realise the source of their deepest frustration — access. See, most of the protests, violence and aggression in South Africa is due to a lack of access to a decent quality of life. Comprehensive planning, which is informed by overarching policies struggles to address this deeply rooted policy problem. There is one core reason for this: replication, retrofitting, copy pasting, duplication — a mirror mentality that forms part of the campaign to attract investment. By replicating what the global status quo perpetuates, we can attract solid funding to build, develop and expand the competitiveness of our cities: at what cost? Well, looking cosmetically solid is the foundation of much of the old and current projects being explored today and in future. Old problems look new and their solutions seem utterly innovative — but the practices which lead to neglect are ignored, lay unquestioned and sleeping dogs are left to never tell the truth. Some interventions are good, but they may not be the best alternative, or the most effective option to genuinely inform and impact on longer-term system wide changes in the mobility and access system in South Africa. How can we reimagine our transportation system of services without a genuine reflection of what has been? How can you tell a story you do not live? Who wrote this policy, what motivated them? Will we eventually follow the footsteps of the Phillipenes, or even Bogota too? Throwing away a sense of heritage, and culture for the sake of efficiency? This will happen all over the planet — we will mimic and mime, but loose the sense of value all commuters feel they should inform. I am tired of worrying about whether people close to me arrive home safely every day simply because there are a few people out there who have are perpetuating a ‘bubble-wrap’ narrative. Packaging South Africa as a beautiful country for the international community will attract investment, but what we need now is a citizenry that believes we are all going somewhere — and transport policies are ready to make the movement possible.


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